When “across the border” is “just down the street”

This weekend will be a busy one at the Canada-U.S. border as thousands of Manitobans gather up their passports and head down to Grand Forks, Fargo or Minneapolis/St. Paul for a weekend getaway.

What if going to another country were as easy as locking the front door and stepping just down the street?


A relatively low fence separates these homes in Surrey, B.C. from a small playground across the street in Blaine, Wash.


…While this fence separating Tecate, Mexico from Tecate, Calif. sends a more firm message

Even in this age of increasingly intensive border security, it’s still possible to do that in parts of the world.

I’m not talking here about  the many border cities that face each other across rivers and straits, such as Detroit, Mich. and Windsor, Ont., Copenhagen, Denmark and Malmo, Sweden or El Paso, Tex. and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. I’m talking about cities and towns where an international boundary cuts right through the middle of neighbourhoods, creating such an invisible line that, if you were in a helicopter looking down, it would be difficult to tell where one country begins and the other ends.

That’s the reality in several communities around the world which through some quirk of history ended up being split in two by a line on a map.


Is it “Chuy” or “Chui”? Depends on what side of the street you’re on.

One community that is almost perfectly split in two is Chui, Brazil/Chuy, Uruguay. The border between the two countries runs down the town’s main street, curiously known as Av. Uruguai (Uruguay Ave.) on the Brazilian side of the street and Av. Brasil (Brazil Ave.) on the Uruguayan side. The split resulted from a long-running dispute between the two countries, with the fate of Chui/Chuy becoming the focal point.

The 10,000 locals and the tourists who drop in to visit the town’s many Duty Free shops are reportedly free to wander back and forth between the two parts of town at will, with customs and immigration posts being located on the roads to and from town.

Putte, Belgium/Netherlands

The Town of Putte: Where Belgium and the Netherlands are just across the street from each other.

A similar situation can be found in Putte, Belgium/Netherlands, where homes on the opposite sides of Canadalaan (Canada Ave.) face each other across the international border.  The abolition of border controls between the Netherlands and Belgium have made life easier for the residents of Putte, whose town was once best known as a smuggler’s haven — and a headache for both Dutch and Belgian border guards.

In fact, people smuggling remains a problem along the Dutch-Belgian border. Several times a day, this blog gets visits from people in poorer countries, particularly India and Pakistan, looking for information on getting across the Dutch-Belgian border — and somehow I doubt that they’re planning to cross as tourists. (Royal Netherlands Marechaussee, take note.)

Putte has been divided since the Peace of Munster agreement between Spain and the Netherlands in 1648, which identified the town as the dividing point between the Dutch-ruled Northern Netherlands (now simply The Netherlands) and the Spanish-ruled Southern Netherlands (now Belgium).


There’s no longer a border guard stationed at the striped pole and hut in Valga/Valka — but keep your passport handy anyway.

The twin towns of Valga, Estonia and Valka, Latvia were actually a single town founded under the German name Walk  in 1286. When Estonia and Latvia declared independence from the Russian Empire amid the chaos of the Russian Revolution and the end of World War I, both tried to claim Valga/Valka as their own. A British civil servant named Stephen Tallents was dispatched to help resolve the dispute, which dragged on for six months until the two countries agreed to split the town in the summer of 1920.

The Soviet years brought some freedom to wander back and forth between the Estonian and Latvian parts of town, with the two being little more than Soviet provinces. When Estonia and Latvia regained their independence 20 years ago, life became more difficult for Valka/Valga’s residents, who had to pass through border checkpoints to visit friends or to go to work.

It wasn’t until 2007 that residents were once again allowed to wander around town without clearing customs,  though prominent gold-coloured signs posted along the border still warn locals to ensure that they are carrying passports when crossing frontiers.

The Estonian Valga is the more populous end of town, with a population of about 14,000, compared to Latvian Valka‘s 6,000 residents.


About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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